Symptoms relating to depression and anxiety are highly prevalent among professional footballers, according to a new mental health study released today by the World Footballers’ Association FIFPro.

The research conducted by FIFPro’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge found 26% of active professional footballers suffer from depression/anxiety, compared to 39% of cases studied among retired players.

“Contrary to popular belief, the life of a professional footballer has some dark sides,” said Dr.Gouttebarge.

“FIFPro’s study, the first of its kind on a global scale, becomes the basis for the international football community to develop and implement optimal strategies to protect and promote the sustainable health of professional footballers.

“Former professional footballers report more mental health problems than current players, endorsing that the period just after retirement from professional football is a critical one for many players.

“We found mental illness among former professional footballers occurs more often than in other measured populations.” (Bultmann 2002; Korten 2000; King 2008; Schaal 2011)

FIFPro, with the assistance of six member unions from the Netherlands, Scotland, Republic of Ireland, USA, Australia and New Zealand, measured over 300 active and former professional footballers. Using well-recognised and validated questionnaires (i.e. scales), the study measured outcomes ranging from distress, burnout, anxiety/depression and low self-esteem to adverse health behaviours covering alcohol consumption, smoking and general nutrition.

Two former international players who endorsed the study, Chris Jackson (New Zealand, 60 caps, 1990-2003) and Jonny Walker (USA, 3 caps, 2004), both agreed to share personal details of their own struggles with mental illness.

Key Figures:
Active Professional Footballers

  • 180 active professional footballers participated, of which 60% were playing for a club of the highest national league at the time of the study.
  • 26% of active players reported suffering from depression/anxiety and adverse nutritional behavior.
  • 19% reported adverse alcohol behaviour.
  • 3% reported having low self-esteem.
  • 7% said they were smoking.
  • 5% reported signs of burnout and 10% were found to be in distress.

Key Figures:
Former Professional Footballers

  • 121 former professional footballers participated, of which almost 65% spent the majority of their careers playing for a club of the highest national league.
  • 39% reported suffering from depression/anxiety
  • 42% reported adverse nutritional behaviour.
  • 32% reported adverse alcohol behaviour.
  • 5% reported having a low self-esteem
  • 2% said they were smoking
  • 15% showed signs of burnout and 18% were found to be in distress.

Dr.Gouttebarge said professional football is littered with psychological pitfalls for the players. “Once the players stop with intensive physical activities they lose their structured life, their social support by trainers and team mates diminishes, they need to find their place in ‘regular’ society, and find another occupation. Consequently, they are likely to experience some mental health problems during this period.” 
Mental Illness No Longer Taboo

By proving scientifically that mental illness in football is widespread, and higher than normal among former professional players compared to other studied populations, FIFPro hopes to increase awareness and acceptance on a subject which was once taboo.

As Dr.Gouttebarge explains, the veil on mental illness has been lifted and there is no need for players to suffer in silence or fear recrimination should they choose to come forward.

“Football stakeholders have a collective responsibility to remove the stigma associated with mental illness. 
All players, whether active or retired, can learn optimal behaviours and coping skills to manage the symptoms of mental illness.”

Several physical and psychological stressors were explored in the study such as severe injuries (training or competition absence for more than four weeks), surgeries, life events (death of a family member) and (social) support from trainer and team mates. All these aspects were self-reported by the players.

Of the 180 active players who participated, a total of 174 severe injuries were reported of which 31% related to knee joints and 12% ankle joints. Seventeen [17] percent reported having three or more serious injuries. In addition, active players reported a total 170 surgical interventions from which more than half related to knees and ankles.

Dr.Gouttebarge said, ““When it comes to any health problem, be it physical or mental, over the short or long term, the minimum standard is to raise self-awareness of players about these issues. They need to be aware of what might occur during and after their football career.”

An acute lack of scientific data about mental illness among professional footballers has been a driving factor behind FIFPro’s global undertaking to establish a new benchmark in this field. Dr.Gouttebarge said the next stage is to gather more data across a variety of countries and continents to add to this important body of work which represents a significant breakthrough in protecting and promoting the sustainable health of professional footballers worldwide.